Agency head defends proposed Australian facial recognition system amid looming political uncertainty

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The technical specifications of the facial recognition system being built by Australia’s federal government do not allow for it to be used for mass surveillance, a Department of Home Affairs representative told a Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security, according to ZDNet.

Acting First Assistant Secretary at Home Affairs’ Identity and Biometrics Division Andrew Rice spoke to the committee as a wave of political chaos resulted in a new Prime Minister for the country, and the resignation of Home Affair Minister Peter Dutton, who introduced the legislation under examination and has overseen the controversial system’s development so far.

“The services enabled by the legislation are not intended to provide agencies with mass surveillance capabilities. Indeed, the technical design of the system could not facilitate this … as it requires users to input a single still image at a time to conduct a query,” Rice said.

“It can’t be connected directly to a live CCTV feed. Even if the agencies attempted to circumvent this by conducting multiple queries in close succession, the way the service operates makes it implausible that agencies could do this to support real-time identification of multiple individuals within a crowd, for example.”

Human Rights Law Centre Executive Director Hugh de Kretser had expressed concerns over the privacy implications of real-time crowd surveillance to the committee earlier in the day. Access Now recently called on the Australian government to prohibit the use of facial recognition technology for mass surveillance in response to the proposed legislation which would underpin the new biometric system.

The Identity-matching Services Bill 2018 and the Australian Passports Amendment (Identity-matching Services) Bill 2018 were introduced to parliament in February. With internal disputes among the ruling Liberal party raising the prospect of a federal election in the near future, the passage of the bills may come into question.

Rice also reiterated that the facial identification service (FIS) will return a gallery of candidates for comparison by trained experts, and that biographical information is only provided when the list is further narrowed.

“We need to make sure — and this is what we’re doing with the jurisdictions and with agencies that will be prescribed under the Bill — to put in place a training regime to make sure that the officers who access the service have got the right skills, encouraging agencies … to think about the face identification service as being a specialist capability that a small group of people do and do all the time,” Rice stated. “That’s what happens in our department at the moment. The face resolution staff are a small team, and that’s all they do. It’s about putting in the range of controls to deal with the fact that, because of the very nature of biometrics, there will be some probabilistic anomalies that have to be sorted out.”

Rice declined to disclose the name of the vendor providing the facial recognition algorithm for the system’s FIS function in May on security grounds.

Rice also told the committee earlier this month that discrepancies between the two pieces of proposed legislation and the Intergovernmental Agreement on Identity Matching Services are due to efforts to future-proof the system’s legal foundation.

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